The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eight 'errors' and an editing error

Regarding the Burton judgment about An Inconvenient Truth

I've watched the relevant scenes, and though I find the polar bear sequence a bit silly, I can find nothing whatsoever wrong with what Gore says in substance or in emphasis in eight of the nine cases.

The troublesome case is where Gore says:

"that's why the citizens of these Pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand"

There is certainly no case where all the inhabitants of a nation have evacuated, to date, although the prospect does not seem remote. This astonishing fact does not seem to faze the critics of the movie in the least.

Now, I'd like to point out that 'all' is a word used very commonly and casually in middle-south educated language. It is used for emphasis, not as a logical qualifier. Indeed in another scene, Gore in discussing ice albedo speaks of the reflection of "all of that energy, over 90%". It's used as a term of informal emphasis.

Arguably, there is some subset of Pacific Islanders who have 'all evacuated' in the loose, emphatic sense of 'all'. I can certainly imagine a context in which the statement, with a little slack for Gore's vernacular, would be reasonable.

That said, the sentence and the accompanying photograph seems spliced loosely into a discussion of sea level rise. It appears without context or preparation. It appears a sort of an orphan clip.

I blame bad film editing. We can't really know exactly what Mr Gore said about that matter from the context of the film, as it was almost certainly dropped in out of context. In at least that sense, it is an error in the film.

The polar bear case, it seems, can be argued.

The others are simply slam dunks in Gore's favor. Other than that out-of-context evacuation comment, I can see nothing wrong with what Mr. Gore said or how the film presented it.

Update: RealClimate comes to exactly the same conclusion I did.


David Duff said...

But an English judge, with absolutely no axe to grind, did!

Belette said...

We're a long way apart on this. On the 20' sea level rise, for example, I can't see it as anything other than Gore being misleading

Steve Bloom said...

OK, Mr. Smarty-pants ice modeler, what's the maximum amount by which sea level can go up under BAU by 2100? As you know, Hansen's view is that the past is of little help in answering this since during past deglaciations ice sheet melt was paced by Milankovitch changes. BTW, I just finished reading the new Greenland melt paper and am slightly skeered as a result. I've seen some informal discussion (IIRC from Richard Alley two or three years ago) to the effect that the limited outlets in Greenland constrain things enough so that a really rapid collapse can't happen, but how sure are we about that? Then there's the issue of how much sea level rise it will take for the WAIS to start moving over that little bitty sandbar.

Michael Tobis said...

I'm pretty much with Steve on this, though he's a bit off on the WAIS mechanism as I understand it.

As I said in this posting, under BAU, sea level is almost certain to rise several meters in a century. The only open question is which century.

When I first saw AIT, I thought Gore was perhaps leaving people with a misapprehension that such a rise in the current century was possible. (He never claims it's certain.) It now appears to me that the conventional wisdom of a few years ago was wrong, that a large, rapid rise in the present century has a sufficient likelihood that we ought to be concerned about it.

It's clear that WG1 was unable to come to any useful conclusion about this or they would have said something.

Apparently Gore talked to ice sheet dynamics folks before I did. I am sure he had a chat or two with Hansen before releasing the movie.

I can't see any basis for calling him out on this point.

Steve, sea ice modeling and ice sheet modeling communities are very distinct.

Michael Tobis said...

David, yes, the judge decided that AIT did something that required correcting.

That's exactly the point of all the interest here. How would the judge know?

David Duff said...

The judge came to his conclusions after hearing the evidence.

But off topic, and in my usual friendly way, may I recommend this article to you. It doesn't prove anything, either, but does illustrate an inherent weakness in what I might call the 'expert class'!

Michael Tobis said...

David, I have already commented at length about the NYT article.

John Mashey said...

I would have been happier with Gore if he had said "We can't yet predict with accuracy *when* a 20-ft rise will happen. We can predict that if burn most of the oil, gas, and coal over the next century or two, that it *will* happen, we just don't know when."
Although I didn't learn anything new from AIT (except the submarine stuff), I thought he did a pretty good job of conveying the science, with just a few fuzzy spots that I wouldn't have said that way.

But, having often had to explain technology to various kinds of audiences [I've done 500 public talks and 1000 sales calls, roughly] if you always talk with all the caveats you use in scientific discourse, you lose a lot of many audiences.

For some reason, people think the world ends at 2100. If we get by with only 1-2-foot rise by 2100, does that mean all is well? How about if it's only 6 feet by 2200? then, 20 feet by 2300? These nonlinear effects in Arctic ocean and Greenland are really tough.

Even if you don't care about anywhere but the USA, we have a *lot* of development along coastlines, and traditionally, countries with seacoasts typically (not always, i.e., Switzerland) are richer, but it is going to be very expensive for countries with lots of coastal development in low-lying areas.

Spend a few minutes with

The Peak Oil folks are persuasive in saying 2015+/-5 years, i.e., the point at which we'll have reached maximum yearly production, with natural gas maybe 20 years later. Peak doesn't mean it stops, just that it gets more and more expensive. I certainly expect to see $10/gallon gas around here in the next decade. ASPO Conference is next week in Houston; Wikipedia on Peak Oil is OK start on the topic.

Hence, if the sea is up 6 feet 200 years off, people then will be moving back and rebuilding ... but they'll be doing it *without* the incredibly-cheap, dense fuels like gasoline and diesel that we used to build our current cities, because petroleum will be rather scarce by then. Maybe biodiesel & ethanol. Maybe electric tractors. BUT NOT cheap petroleum.

Maybe, just maybe, it might be better to stretch the use of those fuels as long as we can, avoid burning the coal,
and avoid the need to move big cities somewhere else.

Let's see: New Orleans has been there for ~300 years, New York and Boston for close to 400, so in some sense, location and infrastructure choices made that far back affect today. If you think the sea will rise one foot and then stop, you do one thing. If you think it will rise six feet, you might do something different. If you think it will go to 20 feet within the lifetime of some infrastructure, you might well do something rather different.

As serious question: how much of your tax money are you willing to spend to keep New Orleans OK in the face of a 1-foot-rise, and a Cat5 hurricane? (remember that Katrina *missed* ...)
My state (California) subsidizes about 25% of the excess money that Lousiana gets from the Federal government. Will it be a good use of my money to keep rebuilding New Orleans where it is? Maybe development should be refocused back towards Baton Rouge (elevation 53 feet), and make sure it's OK when the Mississippi jumps tracks to the Atchafalaya. Tough questions, no easy answers, and I'm very sensitive the human issues involved, and I've had good times in New Orleans, but...

John Mashey said...

Oops, previous should have said:
spend a few minutes with

noting of course, that it is simplistic, as it just shows areas that would be under sea level, ignoring dikes, although they help certain areas but not others.
In particular, long low coastlines are tough, as are big river deltas.

Also, of course, it isn't just the sea-level rise, watertables and salt-water-incursion must be considered.

Steve Bloom said...

I inadvertently left out the "sea." I do know the difference.

Re the WAIS: My vague understanding was that the scenario of concern for SLR is a partial melt of the GIS (mainly the south) that would in turn destabilize the WAIS. I would appreciate a pointer to a more detailed discussion.

Michael Tobis said...

The issue is not whether the ice gets over the sandbar, but whether it retreats behind it. If it does, the system is destabilized, essentially uncorked. I'll try to find the reference I've seen discussed.

David Duff said...

Dear me, did I miss some of your wit and wisdom, Michael, mea culpa!

Steve Bloom said...

Aha, then I'm not confused -- I only sound that way on the Intertubes. :) I do (and did) understand that the grounding line will retreat rather than advance. What I assume (and this seems obvious, but perhaps it's not) that under those circumstances we would see the bulk of the mass loss happening in the form of icebergs that would float off past the "sandbar."

Michael Tobis said...

Fair enough, Steve. From the point of view of the balance of forces in the glacier, the operative concept is "gone".

Probably most of the mass flux would still be frozen as it passed over the terminal ridge but it doesn't matter much either way.

inel said...

Dear david duff,
The English judge watched the American movie narrated by the American, clutching a piece of paper kindly prepared for him by the English Claimant's Counsel, Downes.

If ever there was a case for putting ideas into someone's head, this is it ;-)

As usual, this entire story is being taken out of context. The key point is:

"On the 10th October, the High Court ruled that it is lawful for schools to use An Inconvenient Truth and the other parts of the climate change pack in accordance with amended guidance which is now available online. [It was also a condition of the Court’s ruling that a hard copy of the guidance be sent to schools.]"

I watched the film last week in school with a bunch of students, and I tend to agree with john that if I were to explain this to British secondary school students (which is what this case was about), I would express some points in a different way. Nevertheless, Gore does a good job explaining most points in clear terms, even to non-Americans!

I have been accused of being too nice to Gore on this one, and even with the curious incident of the Pacific island evacuation—regarding which I have posted documents from teachernet and the United Nations providing context and background to his remark—I'd say "Good job!"

I have done so many presentations myself, on both sides of the Atlantic, if I ever did one in front of the cameras without making a mistake, it would be a miracle! It is not easy, y'know, being faultless as Gore is expected to be by his detractors.

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, some very interesting stuff has been turned up so far. Recgnizing both that and the amount of work that will be involved in producing a thorough result, IMHO we should be a bit more ambitious about what to do with the wiki when it's done. If RC will post it, great, but I think it has considerable potential for the media. It might be good to time the release for just before the prize ceremony.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, Steve.

I suspect RC has weighed in as much as they will.

I will keep this going, but I don't especially have higher ambitions for it. If you'd like to take it further, or broaden its scope, by all means do.

David Duff said...

"clutching a piece of paper kindly prepared for him by the English Claimant's Counsel, Downes."

You mean he actually listened to the other side's point of view? Appalling! I really don't know what British justice is coming to!

Anyway, no one has explained to me why, in a British education system that churns out thousands of illiterate and innumerate pupils every year, so-called 'teachers' are wasting their time and my money showing this travesty of a propoganda film.

Steve Bloom said...

"You mean he actually listened to the other side's point of view?"

Only in your dreams. Try reading the judgement carefully.